As a tradition, my family celebrates the year each December with a trip to Carmel. My parents honeymooned at The Highlands Inn 40-years ago and they have come back every year since. When we make this trip, we know we will relax by the Highlands Inn Christmas tree overlooking Point Lobos. We also know we will share a hot toddy while waiting for the bagpiper to come over the hills of Spanish Bay at 5 o’clock and we will savor an amazing meal at the renowned Casanova Restaurant.
Casanova, located on Fifth Avenue between San Carlos and Mission, has a colorful history and rich personality that some are unaware of. This restaurant’s charm goes beyond the amazing Country French and Italian cuisine they serve—it is deep within the family who serves the guests and oozes from the walls that surround the restaurant’s ambiance.
Since 1977 Carmelites have frequented Casanova for the food, the wine, and the authenticity. It began when owners, Gaston, Denise, Michel and Walter, all from the same small hometown in Belgium, were walking along when they suddenly heard a gentle “Hello.” The sound came from behind a screen door in a tiny house. They approached the door and met Aunt Fairy Bird, a small black lady who had lived in the home for almost 50 years. For years her house and lot, situated in downtown Carmel, was coveted by nearby land owners. Ultimately, it was the object of a spirited bidding estate sale, which landed in the Casanova family favor. When she died at nearly 90, the Casanova team learned that she had once been the cook for Charlie Chaplin.
Inspired by childhood memories of his grandparents’ Belgian farm house, one of the owners, Walter Georis designed and remodeled Aunt Fairy Bird’s Fifth Avenue home now known as Casanova. Great attention was given to every detail to maintain the warmth of the quaint residence. The original floor plan of the old house was kept. The Al Fresco dining area was added and a world class Wine Cellar was hand dug 14-feet under the restaurant in 1987. To complement the new cellar, Walter also carefully developed the wine list to include a large variety of local and international wines. The cellar is now home to about 30 thousand bottles of wine and is the annual recipient of the Wine Spectator Grand Award.
In 1997 Casanova expanded by adding the Milagro and Harvest rooms. Many local and European craftsmen contributed to the project. The “Casanova Style” continues to influence the design of other local buildings.
In 2003, a special room was built to house the table at which Vincent Van Gogh enjoyed his meals at the Auberge Ravoux in Sur-Oise, France. The arrival of the table marks the beginning of a cultural exchange between two artistic communities and two world famous restaurants. Exciting culinary and cultural events are scheduled throughout next year, when the table returns to France, to celebrate and honor connections with Vincent Van Gogh on his 150th birthday.
This Casanova visit went above and beyond our memory of previous trips. It may be that the experience just can’t be duplicated, so each visit is like the first taste. The antipasti starter plate with our selected wines presented in the appropriate glasses are perfection. The second course of homemade bean and bacon soup or butter garlic mushroom caps accompanied with warm homemade bread is simply scrumptious. The dinner entrée of fettuccini carbonara, stirred tableside or braised beef baked cannelloni is out of this world. Although we think we couldn’t possibly have dessert, it truly is a must. Chocolate bananas foster and berry tarts with ice cream coupled with the most perfect espresso presentation is quite the way to wrap up the evening!
As you can see, our family celebrations at Casanova are always a delight. From Victor, who takes care of us table side, to the amazingly layered three-course dinner we share with wine and conversation, the experience cannot be beat. The presentation, the thoughtfulness, the homemade desserts and the double espresso that makes you feel like you are back in France provide a familiarity that feels like home. It must come from the spirit of Aunt Fairy Bird and the creativity and passion of the Casanova Team because each time we come there we feel like family.
Casanova will be included in my food memoir, The All American Cookbook: A Collection of America’s Favorite Restaurant and Family Recipes. This book speaks to anyone who wants to bring comfort home through food and cooking. The recipes and stories of family travels and food experiences will serve as a valuable tool for home chefs and families to revisit fond memories and experiment with restaurant style cuisine.